Politics

Wisconsin GOP Circles Wagons for Ryan

In sprint to the finish, GOP challenger Paul Nehlen says local party officials are censoring his campaign

With an uphill primary race against House Speaker Paul Ryan in its final stretch, challenger Paul Nehlen is calling out the local GOP Establishment for trying to build a firewall to protect the incumbent.

Party officials are nominally neutral in primaries, but Nehlen said the Wisconsin GOP has been anything but. The Nehlen campaign reports getting rebuffed in efforts to put signs and campaign materials in county GOP offices and having a presence at party events. He said pro-Nehlen comments have been removed from Republican Party Facebook pages.

“The system is rigged against grassroots interests trying to get in.”

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“It’s ridiculous, because people are going to these party tents, to these Republican victory offices, and my materials aren’t there,” Nehlen told LifeZette. The onetime Ryan supporter said the speaker has betrayed his southeastern Wisconsin district on issues like immigration and trade. “The system is rigged against grassroots interests trying to get in.”

The primary is on Aug. 9. Most analysts expect Ryan to win, but campaign finance reports show that Nehlen has experience a late fundraising surge and has now raised $867,955. (He said that total now exceeds $1 million). He also has drawn the support of Republican activists across the country, including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. A recent poll showed the businessman within striking distance of Ryan.

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A spokesman for the Ryan campaign did not immediately return a call from LifeZette seeking comment.

Nehlen’s campaign manager, Eric Odom, said the challenger has gotten a cold shoulder from the local Republican Establishment for months.

“This has been going on since this began in April,” he said.

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Odom said he tried to pay a $250 fee to reserve a table for the campaign at an event in April sponsored by the Conservative Action Conference in Waukesha County — only to be told it was for incumbents only. He said the campaign was also unable participate in a veterans parade. All six county GOP headquarters have refused to let the campaign put up materials in their offices, he said.

“You can’t find Nehlen signs in any party office, or our literature,” he said. “It’s been a very deliberate attempt to keep us silenced … You would have no clue that Paul Nehlen exists.”

Erin Decker, chairwoman of the Kenosha County Republican Party, said the party has not even opened an office yet. She said the challenger did not attend the party’s Aug. 23 picnic.

“I have not been contacted by the Paul Nehlen campaign,” she said. “I’ve never met Paul Nehlen.”

Odom said State Rep. Samantha Kerkman ordered him to remove Nehlen signs from private property in the county. He said she admitted, though, that she had not spoken to those property owners.

“They don’t hide it,” he said. “They don’t want voters to know they have a choice on Aug. 9.”

Kerkman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gov. Scott Walker is a close Ryan ally and sent out a fundraising letter on his behalf. Nehlen said that when he recently attended a rally for GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in Wisconsin, the governor declined to have his picture taken with him. Nehlen noted that he was a “diamond sponsor” of Walker during the 2014 campaign.

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“He was happy to get my picture taken with him when I was giving money to him,” he said.

Odom said that the national GOP, which funds joint “victory offices” with the local party, has put no pressure on county party leaders to accommodate Nehlen. Odom said he has not complained to the national party, noting that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is from Kenosha and came of age with Ryan.

“With limited time and resources, we’re not going to go to Paul Ryan’s best buddy and ask for help,” he said.

Odom said the reaction of party leaders is the surest sign that the race is close with a week to go.

“There’s definitely lots of signs they’re spooked,” he said. “That’s encouraging.”

Nehlen said he sees his signs all over the district and that grassroots enthusiasm is high.

“I will not be held back,” he said. “I will not be deterred.”

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